I had an interesting conversation with an atheist the other night. Where, when, who, what circumstances: doesn’t matter. What matters was the shared conclusion we drew concerning the nature of and extent of the human capacity to believe. Which, again, boils down to: doesn’t matter. I believe it doesn’t matter. She believes it doesn’t matter. What anyone believes only matters to the extent that it affects how we treat one another in this convoluted, sometimes painful, often beautiful, always-taxing world we live in.
I believe in all sorts of things. She does not. But I also believe that what she doesn’t believe doesn’t affect my beliefs one whit, nor do they prevent her from being a decent and loving person.
She believes that many believers don’t believe everything they’re supposed to believe. And I believe that she’s correct. I don’t always believe everything I’m supposed to believe. Sometimes I’m incapable of believing. But I believe anyway, because the struggle itself is a form and expression of belief. I believe, yes, but I also realize that sometimes I can’t. This realization is itself belief.
Let me explain myself.
I didn’t always believe. I was once an atheist, too. My late parents were initially non-believers, my father devoutly so. I grew up believing only in the miraculous vastness of humankind and the need to drill down deep inside one’s core for moral guidance. Jesus was a good man, my mother said. She believed that. We all did. We believed his message of love, of serving the poor. But that son of God business? Dying into eternal life, blah blah blah? I didn’t go there.
Even when I began to believe, I understood that my own belief can never depend on my credulity: i.e., my faith can’t be pegged on whether This Actually Happened or That Actually Didn’t. So if I can’t wrap my head around, say, transubstantiation, I don’t sweat it, because no one can wrap their heads around transubstantiation. Our heads aren’t big enough to wrap around transubstantiation. Wouldn’t it be strange if they were?
Part of what I believe is that my brain is too limited, too small, too confined by this pressing and solid world, to grasp the things that span beyond it. That’s a major element of my faith, this belief in my own cramped capacity for belief. I believe that I’m more than the neural squishiness within my cranium. I believe that I’m not well-equipped to comprehend, much less believe, the infinite and complex wonder that is the unseen Other. I believe that I’m incapable of true belief, and that’s the basis for my belief.
And whether I or anyone believes that a piece of baked good literally morphs into the body of Christ doesn’t affect how I carry that chunk of God into the world. Because I believe I should be carrying it anyway.
And if I’m not? Then everything else I believe just doesn’t matter.
6 thoughts on “believe it or not”
THANK YOU! Transubstation, the virgin birth, the trinity, the loaves and fishes! I just believe!
Wow, your description of having belief even without understanding because there is no way humans can understand divinity is exactly what I think. Many people I talk to – both atheists and devout biblical literalists – resist that thought. You have been able to articulate it in a way that people can actually understand. Which is why you write a popular blog, and I do not. Maybe next time this comes up, I will just point people here.
Thank you, Susan. I suspect more people feel this way; it’s just that we resist discussing these things in polite conversation.
I agree! And I would extend the argument to ALL beliefs—political ones as well as religious ones. The proof of a life is in the pudding—what do you DO in this fleeting, precious life? Do your actions, in some infinitesimal way, reduce suffering, or add to it? What you’re thinking and believing may help you do that, but sometimes thinking and believing just spins into more thinking and believing. That’s not enough. I’m so glad two of my favorite people had such a great and honest discussion on your first meeting! Sorry I missed the fun . . . Dennis
We missed you too, Dennis. And yeah, I agree. The merit of any life is all in the doing, not the thinking.